For the past 60 years, nuclear energy has accounted for nearly 20% of the United States’ total power usage; today, nuclear energy generates over 50% of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. As the transition away from fossil fuels continues, the energy produced by nuclear generation will only continue to grow. However, the United States relies on Russia and its allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for more than half of its nuclear fuel in the form of uranium. Currently, the risk of international supply disruptions of this critical nuclear fuel has spurred the United States government to take action to reduce our reliance on Russian imports while increasing our domestic supply of uranium and nuclear fuel. Last year, the U.S. Senate introduced a bill to prohibit the importation of Russian uranium to the United States.
In May 2022, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm described to Congress the Department of Energy’s (DOE) strategy to bolster domestic uranium to supply fuel for both existing and advanced nuclear reactors (that could become commercial in the future), thereby reducing the U.S.’s dependency on Russia for fuel. This strategy includes the U.S. Uranium Reserve Program and federal investments in the nuclear industry.
In 2021, Congress provided $75 million to the DOE to purchase domestically mined and converted uranium for the U.S. Uranium Reserve. The DOE is currently executing contracts to purchase hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranium from domestic producers.
In November 2021, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act allocated $6 billion to nuclear plants that would otherwise retire, along with an additional $2.5 billion for advanced nuclear through the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August 2022, allots $700 million to produce a supply of high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU)—used in many advanced reactors being developed and currently not produced domestically.
Reestablishing confidence in nuclear energy
All signals point to a national pivot as confidence in nuclear energy is reestablished. A significant increase in domestic uranium production will be required to meet the projected demand. As a result of falling market prices after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the U.S. uranium industry has shrunk to a low of 21,000 pounds of uranium concentrate produced in 2021, down from a high of over 5 million pounds in 2010. Expanding the domestic uranium supply will require restarting operations that have long been idle and opening new mines.
Since the 1950s, Barr’s team of professionals has put to work their expertise in the areas of science and engineering commonly used in mining, assisting national and international mining clients with project development, operations, and closure. Projects include:
Surface development and facilities engineering, including design of piping distribution networks, central processing plant or CPP, secondary containment systems, ponds, roads, and deep disposal wells
3D geologic modeling (stratigraphic or block modeling) from boring logs
Baseline geologic, hydrogeologic, and geochemical data collection
Field and laboratory testing for characterization of aquifer properties
Advanced groundwater flow and transport modeling, and uncertainty analysis for operational and regional decision-making
Modeling geochemistry of ore-zone aquifer during operations, restoration, and post-closure
Barr has worked with companies that mine and process uranium (both underground and in-situ recovery or ISR), potash, trona, iron ore, coal, lead, copper, nickel, frac sands, precious metals, and substances, such as industrial sands and oil sands, providing both aboveground engineering and design, as well as underground geohydrology characterization and modeling. Projects have involved innovative approaches, design and construction of new mining and mineral processing operations, and modifications to existing facilities. With offices in Denver, Salt Lake City, Bismarck, and Saskatoon, Barr is well positioned to service the uranium industry in the western United States and Canada.
Find us at SME
Join Barr at the SME Annual Conference & Expo in Denver, February 26–March 1, 2023, as senior geochemist Kathryn Johnson co-chairs a session on Uranium Projects, Exploration, Assessments, and Innovations at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 1, in Room 706. The session brings together a perspective on how the uranium industry looks today, a review of DOE’s Uranium Reserve Program, and discussion on the behavior of uranium in the environment as applied to groundwater restoration and remediation. Kathryn will also present work in which Barr has coupled a PHREEQC reactive transport model with probabilistic modeling tools to allow the effects of uncertainty in model input parameters to be systematically evaluated.
Contact us to learn more about Barr’s work in mining, uranium operations, and the western United States and Canada.
About the author
Kathy Johnson, senior geochemist, has nearly 40 years of consulting experience applying geochemistry and geohydrology to the development of mineral resources. Her experience includes data collection and analysis, laboratory test design, geochemical modeling to understand baseline concentrations, in-situ geochemical changes in response to engineered and natural perturbations, water treatment, and remedial designs. She is experienced in navigating the regulations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state agencies and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). She is currently assisting Strata Energy with geochemical modeling for permitting the use of low pH lixiviant on their ISR uranium project in Wyoming.
Geochemical modeling for permitting low pH ISR project
Barr continues to assist Strata Energy at their ISR Project in Wyoming with geochemical modeling used to predict water/mineral reactions in the well field during mining, water quality during restoration, and the potential for transport of constituents out of the well field post-restoration. In addition, Barr designed modifications to accommodate the addition of oxidant to the process within CPP for low pH lixiviant.
Environmental review and prefeasibility design for planned uranium mine
Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin is home to the world’s highest-known grade of uranium. When Rio Tinto was considering advanced exploration options for a uranium mine in the basin, it turned to Barr for a prefeasibility study of the surface infrastructure needed to support shaft pilot drilling and sinking, and headframe construction. With a focus on the planned exploration activities and mine-water quality and quantity, we prepared prefeasibility-level designs with sufficient detail for advanced exploration planning, provided prefeasibility-level cost estimating, and reviewed environmental assessment and permitting regulations and their applicability to the project.
Trona-mining production optimization
Barr has worked with a Wyoming trona-mining client for nearly 25 years. In 2012, we began working on a joint engineering and environmental project to increase production by debottlenecking processes throughout the plant. Our client had identified 16 processes for optimization, ranging from underground mining and hoisting to crushing, grinding, calcining, shipping, and disposing of tailings. We completed basic engineering designs for optimizing each of the 16 processes, as well as plans and specifications and estimated costs. Barr reviewed multimedia permitting requirements for the modified processes and then determined the implications of permitting various combinations of the 16 processes.